Time reports: It was a fiercely combative and confident Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who took to the podium of Damascus University on Tuesday to deliver his fourth speech since unrest erupted in his troubled land last March. His manner and his words made one thing clear: he’s not going anywhere.
In many ways, he has reason to exude confidence. The rickety Arab League monitoring mission, now in its third week of a month-long mission, has been widely criticized for perceived ineptitude and for providing the regime with a veneer of cooperation while Damascus continues to kill its way out of a crisis that has already claimed well over 5,000 lives. The Syrian opposition remains bitterly divided, and has struggled to present itself as a viable alternative to the current regime. Assad’s formidable military and security apparatus remains largely intact, despite low-level defections. Internationally, Russia and China continue to shield the regime from meaningful international censure.
The truth is, Assad’s almost two-hour long speech — full of conspiratorial claims of foreign intervention, a vast media plot against the country, a useless Arab League implementing a Western-Zionist agenda, and destruction caused by terrorists who want to unravel the country’s ethnic-religious harmony — will resonate with a significant portion of frightened, concerned Syrians.
The Syrian opposition, in all of its varied forms, has yet to win over those Syrians — and they were the primary target of Assad’s speech today. The region is rife with examples of what may befall Syria if Assad should fall: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, newly freed of their own dictators, have demonstrated an ascendant Islamism (although it varies in intensity from country to country) that has worried minorities, particularly Christians. Syria has a sizable Christian minority, as Iraq once did. More than a million Iraqi refugees of various religious backgrounds, fled to Syria in the years following Saddam Hussein’s ouster. The sectarian wars in Iraq and Lebanon are a recent memory to Syrians who remember the floods of refugees and the instability lapping at their borders. Assad appealed not only to Syrians who fear the sectarian pandemonium some of their neighbors have recently experienced (Iraq, Lebanon), and the Islamist tilt shifting political orientations throughout the region, but also those who want a strong leader, whatever his faults, rather than a political vacuum and an untested opposition. “Who is the opposition?” Assad said at one point in his speech. “Anyone now can call themselves ‘opposition’ When I meet them I ask, who do you represent?” It’s a question Assad knows many Syrians are asking — and that is the constituency that he wants to keep on his side.